Why I Got Involved in the Robert Latimer Case

[2 October 1997]

When Robert Latimer appealed his murder conviction and sentence to the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal in 1995, I appeared on behalf of the Intervenor, People in Equal Participation, Inc. to assert the rights of persons with disabilities by supporting the Crown's position. It was not a lucrative case, or even within my usual area of practice, but it was one of the more gratifying files of my legal career. The issues in the case touched not only my interest, but fundamental aspects of my life.

I am not disabled. Even at age 45, I am able to play many sports and am mentally sound. My eldest daughter, though, was born with mild to moderate cerebral palsy. The experience of having Mer has exposed me to an entire community of families with disabled children, and to the disabled community generally. My sister-in-law is mentally disabled, since she was less than one year old. My father walked with crutches. I have learned that there is a wide spectrum of abilities and disabilities, but that the individual's sense of the quality of his or her life has little correlation to the extent of disability.

I remember Karen Joynson. She died tragically when she choked on a bedrail while sleeping at Lakeside Camp on the shore of Lake Winnipeg when she was 14 years old. Her disabilities were very

comparable to Tracy Latimer's. I saw her a few times during her life, and was always struck by the profound extent of her disabilities, by the obvious joy she experienced in doing something as simple as eating a meal in a restaurant; by the obvious love and enjoyment felt by her father as he assisted her as she ate. Cliff didn't see Karen as a burden, as difficult as she was to care for. I doubt he ever considered that she would somehow be better off dead than alive, although who has not thought that about themselves at one time or another? Cliff was what I would call a loving parent, proud of the things Karen was able to do and enjoy rather than complaining about her limitations. I could not conceive of him doing any harm to Karen. He truly understood and felt her enjoyment of life. I could never consider anyone harming Karen to be an act of kindness.

When I heard the newscast description of Tracy Latimer, I immediately pictured Karen Joynson. They even bore a resemblance to one another in appearance. As I learned more and more about the facts of the Latimer murder, the contrast between Tracy's family and Karen's truly loving family became more and more stark. I was aghast at the positive image given to Robert and Laura Latimer by the press. The comments in the letters of support sent to these killer parents were the most chilling, as they revealed a grim reality about the public's perception of people with disabilities. "We treat animals better than we treat humans." (i.e. We should euthanize damaged people.) "God approves of what you did." (The majority of letters said this—what a concept of God!). "She is at peace now; you made sure of that." (This one was mentioned by Latimer in his television interview prior to the trial—I found it perhaps the most terrifying comment of all.) "You should not be punished at all." (Because her life was worthless; because you had done enough for her; because you were concerned for her pain—all reasoning that must send a jolt of fear through any disabled person.)

My wife, Cal, was the one who introduced me to the Latimer case. She heard about it on the news. She was appalled at the way the life of this young woman was dismissed as unworthy and a burden on those around her. It is her disability that makes the Latimer case a story. Cal has lived with profound disabilities (in her sister and now in her daughter) all her life and has always had to contend with the disrespect that able people show for the lives and feelings of persons with disabilities. She said, "We should write to Allan Rock [the Minister of Justice at the time]." And so, I sat down at the computer and we wrote a letter. I surprised myself at the emotion and passion that the issue aroused in me. Cal's sense of fairness and justice never wavered. She analyzed the pro-Latimer press ruthlessly. She pointed out that every press item that covers the Latimer case describes Tracy as "afflicted with a severe form of cerebral palsy". Never as just "a girl". She spoke; I wrote; we were a team. I started spreading the word, ultimately discussing the issue at a human rights conference attended by Theresa Ducharme of PEP. Agreement to intervene on behalf of PEP followed.

Perhaps the most touching event of my involvement in the case involved my meeting a woman named Charlotte Cooper, who had attended the trial and the appeal with her 14 year old severely disabled daughter, Angela. Charlotte attended the trial to show an approach to caring for a disabled child different from the Latimers'. She meticulously recorded in longhand the evidence in the trial, with the occasional insertion of her own brief but incisive comments. Angela is athetoid (floppy) where Tracy was spastic (stiff). If Tracy conveyed an image of pain, Angela looks totally relaxed at all times. Charlotte calls Angela her "teacher", because she feels she has learned so much from Angela and from living with her. Charlotte adopted Angela four years before the trial. When Charlotte and Angela were leaving the courthouse in Regina, they had to be accompanied through a labyrinth of passages to an elevator, due to poor access. A sheriff's officer accompanied them. When they got on the elevator, the official turned to Charlotte and said to her, "I know what position you are taking in this case, but still, there must be times when you just wish it were all over." Charlotte replied, "Never! No more than you would wish that for any of your own children." Here, there was no image of pain (the great excuse for Latimer); just disability. The attitude was the same. The disabled child's life has no value; caring for her must be a burden.

Acting in the case has provided a series of such anecdotes that have given me insights into the public's attitude to disability. The experience has been somewhat disillusioning in that respect, but valuable. These factors explain not only why I became involved in the case, but why I will continue to follow it with intense interest and will get actively involved again should further appeals occur.

Submitted by

Grant Mitchell,
September 16, 1997.